When you speak of the beauty of the horizon, it is only from your side of the earth. — Ghanaian expression.
DETROIT — We know of African masks, drums, cowrie shells, and carvings of wood and ivory.
But we've seen scant art showing what Africans thought of whites, beginning with the Portuguese whose large ships first sailed onto West African shores when Christopher Columbus was just a child.
Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present, is a glimpse of the horizon from the other side of the earth; Afro-centric instead of Euro-centric, it is at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Aug. 8.
"What we are trying to do is incorporate African opinions which sometimes get pushed aside," said Nii Quarcoopome, the DIA's curator of African art. "This was an area that had not been looked at extensively."
The 100 objects, mostly figural sculptures, textiles, photos, and objects of wood, ivory, and metal, were gathered from museums and private collections around the world.
Upon entering the exhibit, a big map shows the kingdoms of Africa circa 1500, and in a video projection, Quarcoopome, clad in an African agbada, introduces the show.
The first objects are wooden carvings by Kongo artists of Central Africa. A nude female with child and a male wearing a European shirt and helmet were made to honor ancestors. Both are covered with a chalky pigment that reflects a widespread belief that the dead were white. Some cultures believed spirits abided in the sea.
So imagine how astonished the people of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and the mouth of the Congo River were when white men began arriving in the 1450s.
"It was jarring," said Quarcoopome, born and raised in Ghana. People thought they were otherworldly beings; some figured they were albinos, supposed to be connected to the deities. A king in Benin, Nigeria, linked them to his own dead father.
These weren't the first alien encounters Africans had: for centuries, trade with Arabs had flourished from north to west and along East Africa's coast. But the arrival of Europeans marked a whole new experience.
Quarcoopome spent more than 10 years researching and assembling items that show how Africans felt about whites via art. At various times, Europeans would be business partners, proselytizers, explorers and exploiters, conquerors and colonialists, and ultimately, the owners/managers of transnational corporations operating in their countries.
Subsequently, Africans reacted at various times with mockery and satire, resentment and disapproval, admiration and imitation.
For the first 200 years they traded; Africans providing gold, spices, ivory, textiles, beads, hardwoods, dyes, animal skins, and untold numbers of human beings in exchange for Portuguese copper, silk, velvet, red coral beads, and weapons.
In Benin, where Portuguese cannons and guns made the kingdom invincible, sculptures were fashioned from copper alloy. Artists portrayed whites with thin, sharp noses, big ears, and facial hair, clad in tight uniforms, headgear, and heavy shoes.
A 30-pound elephant tusk carved as a souvenir in the late 1800s shows a procession of European and African figures spiraling upward. They're fighting and drinking, butchering a hog, lugging heavy loads. Usually, a European man would be seated at the tip of a carved tusk. This one, however, has a chimpanzee eating a banana and scratching his rump. Europeans thought chimps were cute, but Africans found them shameless for engaging in sex in plain view. The substitution of chimp for a European suggests mockery on the part of the Kongolese artist.
Sculpted from wood, a European sailor holds a flask of rum and a goblet; on top of his hat is a drum to be beaten.
A fist-sized ivory piece from the mid-1800s has two clothed white men and a naked African woman standing back to back with linked arms. She appears to be smiling; the carver may not have been. Some of the European behaviors Africans observed – drunkenness and womanizing — seemed abhorrent and incongruous with Christian teachings. A large carved wall panel from the early 20th-century Democratic Republic of Congo carries a message for boys not to imitate the promiscuity of a white colonial officer and his soldiers.
A 37-inch tall wooden drum made by a Ghanaian artist of the Fante culture in the early 20th century features a chief and other figures, but it's dominated by a likeness of Queen Victoria, popular there during her 63-year rule. Female breasts were often carved on these drums, and the pair on the queen's chest protrude four inches. Did it represent her nurturing authority over her colonized subjects, or carry a politically provocative or mocking message? And, noted Quarcoopome, interpretations can morph over time.
There's a statue of a European woman and man walking a dog that was carved for the tourist market by a Yoruba artist between 1935 and 1955. The couple's arms encircle each other's waists, a public show of affection the Yoruba would have disdained. They're led by their leashed dog: does its forward position suggest the artist thinks the canine is superior to the whites? African dogs typically worked as guards or hunters.
A section on spirituality shows how Catholicism was incorporated and sometimes hybridized. Missionaries wanted Africans to create religious art, and they added local imagery to crucifixes and statues. A carved wooden door depicts one of the Three Kings bringing a chicken when he visits Mary and the infant Jesus. In another panel, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary, who is pounding grain with a mortar and pestle.
One of the choicest adaptations is a golden pair of eyeglass frames with vertical gold wires where glass should be. The Akans of Ghana associated eyeglasses with worldliness, superior vision, and intelligence. Similarly, a nonfunctional gold watch indicates the owner has cosmopolitan taste and wealth.
Slavery and art
The late 20th century art is particularly lively. A white Mercedes Benz fantasy coffin would have been commissioned to celebrate a life of wealth; to enable the dead to ride in style into the afterlife, or to "fulfill" the deceased's fantasy of owning such a car during life. Made by a Ga artist of Ghana, fantasy coffins evolved when the British colonialists demanded that Africans be buried in coffins instead of open piers.
A late-20th-century contraption called Bantu Education is an indictment of the South African government. It incorporates a stripped-down dental chair, a motor, and a shotgun. Wagons on a small track are piled with school books heading to a wooden desk. Hanging above are a couple of intravenous drips providing weak nourishment.
Not all regions of Africa fell prey to cross-Atlantic slave trading, but in West Africa it began in the 1500s and continued for nearly 400 years, said Quarcoopome. It's acknowledged here by a large photo of the Senegalese Door of No Return, circa 1776, and a vacant display case bearing one word on each side: Shame, Silence, Disbelief, Absence.
"In African art circles, depictions of slavery are very rare. We looked, and looked, and looked," he said. In large part, that's because there was no written or visual record: Africans who were left behind had no way of knowing what those who were shipped out would experience.
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